What is justice? Love with claws

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the second in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the first in the series, “Are we in debt to God?”]

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2017

I want to start this morning with a question. Do  you consider yourself a Johnny Cash fan? I certainly am. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, he was about the only country singer that I would admit listening to. And he was a pretty remarkable performer. He sang songs advocating for Native Americans. He respected young people during the years when even Merle Haggard was singing songs bashing “longhairs.”

Johnny Cash’s popularity peaked with two live albums recorded in Folsom and San Quentin prisons. In San Quentin, he did a song he wrote called San Quentin, where he sang, to loud cheers, “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you. May all the world regret you did no good.” I am moved by the respect he showed the people in those prisons.

“Love with claws”

There was another live record that he recorded at about the same time—Live at Madison Square Garden in New York, December 1969. The height of the Vietnam War. Cash talked about that war—in itself a kind of gutsy thing for a country singer. And what he said was striking.

He talked about how he was often asked what he thought about the war. He had visited Vietnam about a year earlier and performed for the troops. His interviewer asked, “So that makes you a hawk?” And the crowd cheered. But Cash said, “No, that don’t make me a hawk.” But “when you watch the helicopter bring in the wounded and sing to them and try to encourage them so they can be healed enough to go home, it might make you a dove with claws.” Then he launched into a popular anti-war folksong, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” about putting an end to war.

I’m not sure what Cash meant by “dove with claws.” Since he sang an antiwar song, I want to say that he believed tenaciously in peace. That phrase has stayed with me, though, “a dove with claws.” I’ve adapted it for my sermon today—titled “Love with Claws.” I use that phrase, “love with claws,” as a kind of definition for “justice.” Justice, I want to say, can be understood as “love with claws.” Or, as Martin Luther King said, quoted on the front of our bulletin today: “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” I will be interested if you think this makes sense when I am done…. Continue reading “What is justice? Love with claws”

The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis

Ted Grimsrud—February 7, 2017

We in the United States enter into uncharted waters in these early days of the Trump regime. It seems clear that in the months and years to come, the United States will be the location of political strive of an intensity not seen for a long time within the boundaries of our nation. The kinds of conflictual social struggles that most of us have only observed from a distance are almost certain to become very close to hand.

I believe it is important to note a couple of qualifications to the generalizations I made in the above paragraph. For people of color in the US, and members of other vulnerable groups, the United States has not been a place of comfort and tranquility. We don’t know what kinds of suffering will emerge as a result of the takeover of the federal and most state governments in all their branches by anti-democratic reactionary forces. However, we do well to keep these sufferings in perspective given our nation’s legacies of the intense violence visited on indigenous peoples, on imported slaves, and on sexual minorities—among others. For those still today who have lived with the consequences of such violence over generations, the word to we frightened middle class mostly white folks could legitimately be “welcome to our world.”

Likewise, an awareness of political turmoil around the world over the past 125 years reminds us that for many areas of the world that have suffered from interventions from the American Empire, such turmoil has been fostered by the projection of American force. The words from such locations to us might also appropriately be “welcome to our world.”

However, even as we don’t magnify our own sense of uncertainty and anxiety with claims for their unprecedented significance, it should be cold comfort to those who already know the dynamics of vicious prejudice, authoritarian governance, economic dislocation, and environmental degradation. That’s because they will also likely have their suffering enhanced in the days to come. The Trumpian agenda surely will not be tempered by compassion for the historical sufferings of the vulnerable.

The left/right analytical framework

It seems to me that one important element of resistance for all of us is to think carefully about how to frame our political dynamics. One framework that has become conventional wisdom is to think in terms of a left/right spectrum. Some are saying that after eight years of a leftist government with the Obama administration (admittedly greatly constrained by the legislative power of the right) we are moving to a rightest government with Trump. One’s response to Trump, et al, is said to reveal where one stands on the left/right spectrum. Continue reading “The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis”

What would Jesus say about the Russians?

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2017

“What would Jesus say?” is a common questions Christians ask when they are in the midst of discerning what they themselves should say or do. For it to be a helpful question, I think we do better to think in terms of Jesus’s general moral outlook more than looking for specific verses to apply directly to our time.

I’m not sure I would say that people of good will (not only professing Christians) must ask this question—but I think it would almost always serve us well. And, clearly, if we draw from Jesus’s general moral outlook, we retain a large measure of responsibility to think and reason and act for ourselves. Jesus’s moral outlook gives us guidance but it does not give us a direct blueprint.

Currently, in the United States, we are badly in need of careful moral discernment. We are badly in deed of a moral outlook that gives us a stable set of moral convictions that will resist our tendency to look for guidance that justifies our own actions or simply allows us to condemn our enemies because they are our enemies. That is, we are in need of moral guidance that demands that whatever criteria for morality we use apply equally to ourselves as they do to our opponents.

It is risky right now to appeal to Jesus because so many people in power present themselves as “Christians” while acting and speaking in ways that are very much in tension with the actual life and teaching of Jesus. So, to evoke Jesus makes one vulnerable to be dismissed as simply another pious-sounding hypocrite. At the same time, appealing to Jesus’s actual moral outlook might provide a basis for challenging the approaches of self-professing Christians. That is what I hope to do with this blog post.

Continue reading “What would Jesus say about the Russians?”

Ten books for radical Christians: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 6

Ted Grimsrud—December 14, 2016

One of my responses shortly after Trump’s election was to think about a reading list of books I have found helpful as I seek to understand how my Christian faith might help me understand and respond to this new phase in American history. My thought in sharing this list is not that I am providing any definitive guidance. As with my previous post on helpful news sites, here I am also hoping to stimulate sharing. What is a book (or few) that you think would be helpful for these times?

This is a fairly random list. I thought about it just long enough to come up with ten titles I feel good about. In time, with more thought, I would formulate a much different list. My hope though, is simply to get some ideas out there. I am confident that each of these books is worth paying attention to. I don’t actually think they are the ten best or most important books. If we’re serious about understanding our situation, along with listening to each other, along with keeping up with the news and analysis, we will need to read more than ten books.

As a rule, these books are quite readable and written for educated non-specialists. A few are overtly theological; the others provide useful awareness of our setting where Christians are trying to live out our theology.

(1) Walter Wink. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in an Age of Domination. Fortress Press, 1992.

This remarkable book still stands as a unique multi-disciplinary effort. A quarter of a century after its publication, it remains the best example of the fruitful combining of biblical theology, social analysis, and transformative activism I’ve ever seen. Wink writes out of a passion for nonviolent social transformation that he expressed through his own activism. He understands the social dynamics of the “domination system” within an America enslaved to the myth of “redemptive violence” (Wink coined both of these quoted terms in this book). Like precious few other thinkers, Wink combined a commitment to social transformation (and a profound structural analysis) with an awareness of the need for a vital personal spirituality. Though a long book, Engaging the Powers is quite readable, and it’s inspirational. It’s scholarly and practical at the same time.

(2) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. Fortress Press, 2001 [original edition 1978].

Brueggmann is a wonder, an extraordinarily prolific writer still going strong well into his ninth decade of life. Probably his main importance for this list is that like no other writer, he gives us message of the political radicalism of the Old Testament as a necessary resource for present-day Christians (and all other people of good will). Just about any of his books is worth reading for this message. I cite this older volume (the second edition adds little to the first) as a basic introduction to a prophetic reading of the Bible. One of his key insights (if a bit simplistic) is the distinction in biblical writing between the “prophetic consciousness” and the “royal consciousness.” The Bible itself contains a debate between these two viewpoints, though in the life and message of Jesus it ultimately sides decisively with the prophetic—a crucial insight to keep in mind in our day.

Continue reading “Ten books for radical Christians: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 6”

On being informed: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 5

Ted Grimsrud—December 12, 2016

My approach to gathering news and information about the world is pretty haphazard. I have not put much time into self-consciously seeking out the best sources. More, I notice some sources that I find helpful and connect with them. In this post, I will simply list what I find helpful. I invite anyone who has additional ideas to share them in the comments.

I don’t offer this out of any sense of expertise on my part. But it is possible there are some sources here that might be new to a few people. In these times, we need to share our thoughts and resources and not worry too much about whether we are profound enough. What I offer here is simply a response to my wife Kathleen’s question: How do you stay informed?

I’m far from being a news junkie. I have pretty much eliminated television and radio from my life. Partly, I find those media to be more conducive to manipulating the watcher/listener.

I used to read corporate media regularly—Time or Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post. And longer ago I listened to NPR. But I increasingly felt like I was being shaped by them in ways I didn’t like, even if I partook of them critically. I was reminded of this during the primaries this year when I read the Post a lot. I found the pro-Clinton bias quite subtle but relentless—and off-putting.

Now, I try to stay aware with a wide mix of written sources, mostly accessed randomly.For starters, though, to help my convictional framework, I read as much as I can from a core group of thinkers who I trust. This is partly for their information, but maybe even more to reinforce a sense of critical awareness. Some of the key people for me are Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Cornel West. I greatly respect their values, their knowledge and intelligence, and the breadth of their visions for human wellbeing.

I get emails from numerous sources that I scan over quickly. And I do mean “scan.” I never spend more than a few seconds on an email except when, occasionally, I seem something I want to read more thoroughly. Not very sophisticated, but I find this approach useful.

As I put this list together, I realized that I don’t know of any sites from an overt faith perspective other than Tikkun. I would love to learn of more….

Twenty-five informative sites: Continue reading “On being informed: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 5”

The book of Revelation on living in Empire: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 4

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2016

The book of Revelation does not have a positive reputation these days. For many Christians it is seen as hopelessly complicated and obscure. In my opinion, it is indeed the case that understanding Revelation is difficult. I have been studying it pretty intensively, off and on, for about 40 years now. I believe I have to a large degree figured Revelation out, and I am trying to find clear and accessible ways to explain what I have figured out. But it is not a quick and easy task (one place I presented my ideas was in my congregation, where I preached a series of sermons on Revelation—I summarized the main points in some blog posts; it took 18 to cover all the points I had to make, and I felt as if I only scratched the surface). Revelation does not fit on a bumper sticker!

Perhaps, though, part of what makes Revelation potentially very useful for peacemakers today is precisely its complexity. But even with that complexity, I think some of the useful insights we can gain from Revelation are not obscure or inaccessible. If we are to learn from Revelation about how better to live faithfully in our troubled times what might be some of the key lessons? I’m at work on a book-length commentary on Revelation that will focus on this question. Here are some summary points:

(1) Keeping the way of Jesus central

Revelation offers the Bible’s most extended and profound critique of the dynamics of empires and their effects on people of faith. This critique remains important. However, we should also remember that the central concerns for the book are the health and faithfulness of the communities of Jesus’s followers. John critiques Rome in order to help his Christian readers to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

This ordering of priorities remains important. I don’t think the lesson is so much that we should focus only internally on the life of the institutional church while remaining indifferent toward our broader social situation. More so, I think the point for us is the reminder that in all areas of our lives, the way of Jesus remains our guide. We always run the risk of marginalizing that approach to life—sometimes with a preoccupation on the machinations of those “inside the beltway.” However, whatever healing is to come for our world and whatever the role of the “great nations” in that healing might be, the ultimate bases for healing remains always the message of Jesus—love God and love neighbor. And this way of healing has to be embodied in actual face-to-face relationships even as we also do what we can to further humane public policy on the macro level. This embodiment is why the congregations are so important to John. Continue reading “The book of Revelation on living in Empire: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 4”

The book of Revelation and America’s election: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 3

Ted Grimsrud—December 10, 2016

Perhaps in our tumultuous times following Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States, the book of Revelation may come into its own. If it does as a resource for faithfulness to the way of Jesus, it will be because we read it as a prophetic book in the line of Amos and Jeremiah, not as a book of predictions about the future.

I find Revelation to be a comfort and an inspiration in these troubling days. It comforts with its reminder that the terrible plagues of human history do not negate the reality of God’s love as the most powerful force in the universe. And it inspires with its reminder that the pattern of Jesus (faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth; Rev 1:5) still provides a blueprint for authentic resistance and healing presence for us today.

So, it will be worth taking some time to try to understand the message of Revelation and to reflect on how that message remains relevant (here’s more on my views of Revelation). We are not living in the 1st-century Roman Empire. But perhaps by living in the 21st-century American Empire we still have a point of connection with Revelation’s visions.

Christians seem to be taking several approaches to the election of Trump and the likely upheaval that the US will experience. I want to suggest that Revelation’s teaching might lead us to suspect that each one of these approaches might be problematic.

(1) “We can count on a happy ending”

“We can take comfort that no matter how bad things might be in the present, everything will work out well in the end.” This idea gets support, for some, from the promises in Revelation of the coming of New Jerusalem, the defeat of the Dragon and his people, and the victory of God’s people over God’s enemies. In this view, Revelation is seen as predicting a happy and certain outcome to human history.

In response, I do think that taking Revelation seriously might offer us comfort during our times of distress. However, it is a difficult comfort, not linked with certain happy endings. I understand Revelation to be teaching about how a happy ending might be achieved—by staying true to core convictions such as the centrality of love, even in face of seemingly overwhelming centralized state (and in our time corporate) domination. However, it cannot provide a guarantee that “things will work out.”  That’s up to us—not that we wrest control of history from God and exercise our own domination, but that we must follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Only as we do so can we hope in New Jerusalem.

Continue reading “The book of Revelation and America’s election: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 3”

The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part two: What to expect and what to hope for

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

Most of the focus of attention since the election, as it was during the campaign, is on the person of Donald Trump. However, probably in the scheme of things, the resounding success of the Republican Party across the board will have more impact on the nation and on the world. Trump will provide an entertaining sideshow, but I suspect he won’t actually exercise all that much power in relation to the big policy issues or in the day-to-day functioning of the federal government.

So far, it seems that Trump is surrounding himself with prospective cabinet members and top staffers who come from the right side of the Republican world, which is rightish indeed.

What to expect?

We have the precedents of states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin where, when the Republicans have gained a monopoly of power, they have acted quickly and decisively to impose policies that are intended to solidify their power. The “wait and see” talk about the new Trump administration is surely overly naïve. It’s hard to know what could be done to slow the Republicans down, but it seems certain that the changes will be immediate and devastating for democracy and the wellbeing of vulnerable Americans. And it will take a long time for the nation to recover from these actions.

One of the main dynamics to watch will be to see how the new government will work to extend the Republican efforts in recent years to reduce access to voting and to other elements of governmental power. Recent Supreme Court actions related to this that many of us hoped would be turned around with a center-left replacement for the late justice Scalia will instead be reinforced by Trump’s Justice Department. Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions has one of the worst records with regard to voter suppression of any major American politician.

This will happen in part due to the much noted evolution in the demographics of the US that have been seen to favor the Democratic Party—non-white and younger voters tend to tilt more to the left. They will find voting more difficult as the Republicans seek to consolidate their power.

Continue reading “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part two: What to expect and what to hope for”

The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

It is difficult to write about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It seems certain that the US is entering uncharted waters. It also seems certain, to me at least, that what is coming will be worse than what most of us can imagine. The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world. We are about openly to become the rogue nation—”breaking bad” indeed.

The impending storm

A memory comes to mind. Many years ago, Kathleen and I were on a road trip. As evening neared, we approached Clovis, New Mexico from the west. To the east we saw a huge dark, dark purple horizon. As we got closer, the darkness grew. We clearly were heading into a storm. It turned out to be a big one. Hail, heavy rain. We inched into town and the streets were awash with several inches of water. We had a similar experience more recently, driving home from the northeast. Here the dark, dark purple horizon was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together along the Potomac River.

In both cases, there was this strong uneasy, fearful, feeling as we approached the storm. We felt some wind but basically things were calm. But we knew we were heading into trouble and there was no place to go to avoid it. And, in both cases, the storm turned out to be worse than we even imagined.

This is how I feel right now. We’ve got these few weeks before the fury of the new Republican unified power on the federal level will hit us. I see no reason not to expect that the impact of that power won’t be even worse than the most fearful imaginings we might have right now.

Still, this is a time to try to think seriously and deeply—and I believe it is also a time to think theologically for those so inclined. The United States, the world’s one superpower, is in deep trouble. It is nearly impossible to imagine that the next four years won’t be a disaster in almost every sense of the word. And even should the nightmare end at that point, something that right now seems less than likely, the damage that will be done will be difficult to repair.

The importance of core convictions

I believe that one of things we should  be doing now—and this will remain important for as long as I can foresee—is think deeply about core convictions, about the meaning and purpose of life, about our orientation toward life. We are going to face severe stresses, and conflicts, and fears, and deep discouragement. What will guide us as we struggle to move ahead? Continue reading “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?”

A pragmatic case for voting Green

Ted Grimsrud—November 7, 2016

My post on Friday, “Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton,” elicited quite a bit of discussion both here on the blog, on Facebook, and on the Mennonite World Review site where it was reblogged, as well as the MWR Facebook page.  I found most of the conversation to be discouraging. The Clinton supporters who responded, mostly personal friends, mostly Mennonites, mostly political progressives, mostly inclined toward pacifism, rarely if ever addressed the heart of my argument.

Problems with Clinton

My argument was not about Trump vs. Clinton but it was about the concerns posed by a potential Clinton presidency, most importantly (I suggest) in the areas of militarism and imperialism. I didn’t imply anything less than a deeply negative view of Trump. I stated that the question about voting for Clinton or not was for me a question that depended on being in a state where Clinton is almost certain to win (or, even more, in a state where Trump is certain to win)—not a truly contested state. Given that dynamic, I suggested that for me a vote for Jill Stein has the virtue of affirming a vision that actually affirms peace as a core commitment.

However, almost all of the negative comments turned it back to Clinton vs. Trump. There was hardly a hint that anyone is deeply troubled by Clinton’s warism—and interestingly, no one felt the need to challenge my assumptions about this warism. So, the basic sense is that yes, indeed, Clinton is committed to greater militarism and imperialism, but this is nothing to be worried about.

Now, my argument did rest on the premise that Clinton almost certainly would win Virginia. One of the ways I supported this premise was to point out that neither Trump nor Clinton was campaigning here, with the implication that both campaigns were accepting that Clinton would win Virginia. Well, since I wrote that, it turns out that Trump is coming here. As I said I would under those circumstance, I am reconsidering my vote. Continue reading “A pragmatic case for voting Green”